Accessibility & Inclusivity: Autism and Playgrounds

In this third installment of the Westplay podcast we interview Alany who has extensive experience working with people on the autism spectrum. She tells us about the importance of understanding the needs and what a playground should be like.

Do you want to introduce yourself?

Yes, absolutely. My name is Alany. I am in the mental health field. I’ve been in this field for about seven years now. My experience in the mental health field began working with children and adolescents as well as adults overseas and in Peru. My passion grew while I was working with a very vulnerable population. And then I came back here, and I started hyper-focusing on children with autism. So I work in a school readiness program for kids on the Spectrum for about two and a half years. I did some home-based therapy, and then we did some therapy in the center with a clinic that basically prioritized school readiness for these children and kind of with hopes of giving them an opportunity to have a normal life. Right. So that was really the moment where I really discovered my passion for mental health, specifically for the year. So that’s basically some of my background. I know that our focus here are the children. So, I would love to kind of focus on that part of my career.

That’s so cool. What kind of things are involved in school readiness for them?

The school readiness program, it implicates a variety of factors. It builds on skills that we don’t think about when we don’t work with children on the spectrum. So, for example, non-verbal imitation. There’s a lot of skills that we teach our young one through non-verbal indication. For example, if I wave to a young one, it is assumed that this young one will wave back. Children on the spectrum don’t have those basic skills. So non-verbal imitation was a huge one. We also work on fine motor skills and gross motor skills fields that help you eat, skills that help you write, skills that you use every day in school that you don’t think about because these are just things that naturally strengthen when you are in your home, church, the playground when you’re with your peers, they just kind of naturally strengthen on their own. And so children on the spectrum don’t have that luxury. So we worked on fine motor skills and growth, motor skills.

Could you tell me a little bit about accessibility and exclusivity and what those terms mean? Are they the same or are they different? Do they overlap?

Well, I think yeah. I think when we’re when we’re discussing the autism spectrum disorder specifically and their population, I definitely think that the term that you mentioned accessibility as well as exclusivity, not that the definitions are different, but I think they need to be revisited so that we find common ground in their experience in the playground if that makes sure.

So I know in Canada they seem to use those terms with somewhat specific meanings when I think of accessibility, of thinking things like wheelchairs or maybe some difficulties and movement. And when I think inclusive, I’m thinking maybe like you were talking about people on the autism spectrum who need specific training for certain social skills and things like that. And I don’t know if that perception is accurate of how they are.

That’s definitely my interpretation of the two words as well. I think coming from the background that I come from with that focus in autism, when you say accessibility, aside from these physical disabilities, such as that using a wheelchair and that sort of thing, is accessibility to me also. And that’s why I think that there’s some overlap and this is just my work. But I think that there’s some overlap there because with children with autism since they have that difficult time socializing, the social piece is so huge in a playground. I mean, how many children made good friends in a playground? And so how do you make it accessible for children with autism? There are some children with autism that have. Because their fine and gross motor skills are so poor, they may not necessarily benefit from climbing on a ladder. They don’t have those fields where they can kind of coordinate their legs with their hands and arms to go up, something so, how do you make it accessible for children who are on the spectrum, who don’t have the physical strength that children are not on the spectrum have?

So I think a lot of it has to do also that some of them have a sensory processing disorder. And so what does that mean? Texturize bothers me. I might be hypersensitive to the way that the slide feels or the way that the monkey bars feel. And so how do you make it accessible for children with autism who have that sensory processing disorder? It just changes the nature and the strength of how we present things to children on the spectrum.

It’s something I’ve heard about and been a little bit exposed to, but I haven’t had to personally deal with that with anybody that I interact with on a regular basis. So that’s a really important perspective to think about.

I think another thing, and I’ll end with this point is, you know, a lot of them, for example, that don’t have these skills very well-developed, they have trouble with balance. And so some things or some items that we might create with good will. Great. Wow, how great with this obstacle course thing. Right. We don’t realize how frustrating it could be with children on the spectrum. It can be so frustrating for them because it looks fun and I want to engage in it. But my skill, my weaknesses don’t allow me to be able to connect better with these children because I feel like the odd man out. And so it’s kind of like walking on eggshells because you want to make it accessible, but then you also want to make them feel inclusive at the same time.

Podcast (full interview)

You can listen to the full interview in the following podcast:

What do you think about this topic? Have you had any experience in a playground?

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